Staedler Noris HB 2, Or: How I can smell my father even when he’s gone
When I hit a roadblock while writing, I open the upper left-hand drawer of the filing cabinet under my desk. It’s filled with packages of Staedler Noris HB 2 pencils, twelve pencils in each package, one stacked on top of the other.
The pencils smell of wood and graphite, intermingled with the somewhat musty odor of the aluminum drawer. They take me back to the storage room of my father’s architecture firm in the center of Rotterdam, where he’d sometimes take us on Saturday mornings when we were kids.
I would often hang around the house rather than play outside, so I’d be close by when he grabbed his brown leather briefcase. I hoped that my brothers and sister wouldn’t see that he was heading for the office because I wanted to go there with him by myself. Just us two.
While my father attended to his business, I wandered around the half-dark floors with their empty desks, arid plants, and models of churches, office buildings, and shopping centers spread like miniature cities atop the tables. The personal possessions left by his collaborators—a sweater draped over a chair, a jacket hung against the wall, a newspaper spread out on a desk—made the office feel like a hastily abandoned film set.
After having done the rounds I’d go to the upper floor storage room. When I opened the door, I smelled paper, pencils, ink, and the distinct air of the enclosed space itself. It was the smell of my father’s work and, by extension, of my father himself.
I’d take a bunch of white sheets and several boxes of the Staedler Norris HB2 pencils, which I used at home to draw the contours of faraway cities with palm trees. I dreamed of visiting such places one day. I’d bring my booty to my father and when I asked if I could take them home, he’d nod absentmindedly while going through his papers.
I kept the boxes of pencils in the upper drawer of my huge brown desk, a piece of discarded office furniture that my father had decorated our rooms with.
Now, here in Barcelona, fifty-five years later I can smell my father in the upper left drawer of my desk. In the upper right drawer is the remembrance card my family handed out after his funeral two years ago.
On the photo, taken a couple of years before he died at the age of almost one hundred, he half smiles straight into the camera, his eyes a little squinted and his head slightly tilted as if probing the world, probing me.
I hardly ever open that drawer; it’s still too painful.
But maybe one day, there will be a point when I can place that photo of my father together with the pencils; with the smell that most reminds me of him. Not just in my writing, but in real life too.